Miami’s Automotive Gem – Miami’s Auto Museum at the Dezer Collection

June 30, 2013 by  

Miamis-Auto-Museum-at-the-Dezer-Collection1A recent issue of Old Cars Weekly contained an article about an automotive museum located in North Miami, the Dezer Collection, about 60 miles from my home in Palm Beach County, Florida. I knew about this museum for some time, but was taken aback at the admission price of $40 to see the entire collection, housed in two buildings. Admittedly, operating a museum of any kind is a very expensive labor of love. Acquisition, restoration, decoration, and the rest are costly, not to mention the cost of utilities, property taxes, etc. That said, I had to be in Fort Lauderdale that morning (about halfway between my home and the museum), so I had a good excuse to go.

Lunch

royal castle

In fact, I decided to make a day of it in Miami, by having lunch in one of the last two operating Royal Castle hamburger joints (a South Florida legend). I went to the one at NE 125th St. and 7th Ave (Arnold’s Royal Castle), and had a great, nostalgic meal. Royal Castle “sliders” are a little bigger than the Krystal or White Castle ones you may be familiar with. I last ate at a Royal Castle over 35 years ago when I was stationed at Homestead Air Force Base, a preferred lunch spot when the Air Force dining hall was less than an attractive option. The memories all came flooding back, as did the acid reflux. But it was a good acid reflux, continuously reminding me of my wonderfully decadent meal.

The Museum, Building 1

The Dezer Collection was only about 5 miles away at NE 146th St and 20th Ave., just a few blocks west of Biscayne Boulevard. I entered the first building to buy my admission tickets, and the first thing that happened was that the kind ticket taker noticed by (very) gray hair and immediately offered me the Senior Citizen ticket price of $25.00 for access to both buildings, rather than the standard adult price of $40.00 (of course, I didn’t tell them that I’m still a bit south of 60).

The traditional 50s diner was closed, but the seating was most entertaining, consisting of 1950s vintage classic cars (a 1959 Chevy convertible, and a 1959 Cadillac convertible, for example) cut in half, with couch-like seats and a table between them. I only hope that the cars were otherwise unsalvageable rust buckets, as I would hate to think they were potentially restorable.

The Microcar Gallery

I am a car nut of the first order, with a particular love of wacky European cars of the 50s and 60s. Imagine my delight to find the first gallery I entered was a collection of European microcars from that era. Microcars were quite commonplace in Europe in the years immediately following the end of WWII. People needed to get around, but could not afford a traditional automobile. The microcars filled this needed gap. Usually, they were diminutive (hence the micro in microcar), with seating for one or two, powered by an air cooled two-stroke one or two cylinder powerplant. These were extremely simple to manufacture with the limited tooling available in those difficult times, and were basic, basic transportation. Brands like Maico, Bond, Heinkel, Trojan, Isetta, Velorex, Goggomobil, Lloyd, and even Messerschmitt were popular alternative transportation at the time. As the Marshall Plan helped to restore prosperity to these war-torn nations, workers were able to afford more traditional brands, and disposed of these microcars as quickly as possible, as they were a reminder of the deprivation of those early postwar years. That’s what makes collections such as the Dezer even more incredible, as the vast majority of these tiny vehicles went to the scrap heap due to rust and neglect.

Lloyd Alexander
Lloyd Alexander
maico2
Maico
Zundapp JanusZundapp Janus1
Goggomobil
Goggomobil2
vespacar2

Vespa (France)

1 The Zundapp Janus, only in production for two years, was a most interesting vehicle. It had two doors: front and back, so the passengers sat with their backs to the driver. Janus (I think) comes from the name of the two-faced Roman god.

2 The German Goggomobil was a popular microcar in its day. It was one of the few microcars to survive and flourish, making the transition to a more conventional compact, the Glas Isar. After producing several expensive sport coupes, the brand was acquired by BMW in the mid-1960s.

Hollywood Cars of the Stars

monkee2The next gallery contained cars from the movies and television. Multiple variations of the Batmobile started the tour, followed by either originals or reproductions of the Starsky and Hutch Ford Torino, the Monkeemobile, the ghostbust1Ghostbusters Cadillac Ambulance, a Flintstones collection, and a very large gallery devoted to the cars (and even an airplane) from the James Bond films. Further wandering uncovered their cars for sale, some of which were in pretty sad shape, but there were also a few nice ones including an original 1960 Valiant, and a 1964 Thunderbird Roadster (a fiberglass section covered the rear seats. Finally, I discovered a magnificent model train set that looked real familiar. I inquired with the ticket office and they were able to confirm that it had recently been obtained from the John Staluppi Cars of Dreams auction. Nice to see it went to a good home.

Across the breezeway is the second building. Here’s where you can find a really nice collection of cars from the 1950s, military vehicles, motorcycles, motorscooters, European classics of the 50s and 60s, and bicycles.

The Museum, Building 2

European Classics Gallery

ifa2

East German IFA

wartburg1

East German Wartburg

volga2

Soviet-era Volga

multipla3

Fiat Multipla

Just to give you a taste of this very eclectic collection, as I walked into the European classics gallery, the first thing I saw was a 1960s vintage East German Wartburg. Very high on the wild and wacky scale, the Wartburg is “powered” by a 1 liter three cylinder, two stroke engine, using much the same technology as the iconic Trabant (a smaller car, powered by an air-cooled two cylinder, two stroke engine, with a body make of some weird resin mixed with paper and cotton products). Right next to the Wartburg was a Soviet-era Volga sedan. A tough car for an even tougher environment. Wandering around the gallery, I saw several wonderfully weird French cars, including a Renault 4CV, a Simca Aronde (my parents had a Simca when I was growing up), a Panhard (which marked the exit of one of the world’s oldest automotive brands), and several Citroens (including a stretched-chassis station wagon 2CV model). German brands included an Auto Union (DKW) 3=6, sitting right next to an East German IFA (which predated the Wartburg), opelrekord1a 1960 Opel Rekord with the wild wraparound windshield, shrunken to fit this small European sedan, Volkswagens, BMW Isettas, and a couple of Lloyd Alexanders (which bridged the microcar/compact car class). An Italian Fiat Multipla was on display. The Multipla was really the forerunner of the modern minivan, able to fit up to seven passengers within the wheelbase only slightly longer than a VW Beetle.

American Classics Gallery

54packard2

1954 Packard Caribbean

Next was a gallery of American cars of the 1940s through the 1960s. Highlights included a 1954 Packard Caribbean convertible, a 1958 Oldsmobile Super 88, several rare wood-clad cars of the late 40s including Chryslers and a super rare 1947 Chevrolet. An original condition (slightly scruffy) 1951 Frazier was on display. The Frazier was part of the failed attempt by megawealthy shipbuilder Henry Kaiser to compete with the “big 3.”

The big joke in the late 40s was this little ditty:

51frazier

1951 Frazier

Buy a Kaiser and surprise her.
Buy a Frazier and amaze her.
Buy a Tucker…
And take her on a date.

Also on display were large collections of motorcycles, motorscooters (with rooms dedicated to Vespa and Lambretta), bicycles, and even a wall of outboard motors!

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The vehicles, unfortunately, are packed together fairly tightly, making photography difficult, and sometimes impossible. Additionally, if you take a real close look at some of these cars, you can see that a shiny coat of paint was used to cover a lot of hurt (rust and other body damage). In my younger years, I judged cars at antique car shows, so I am to some extent trained to spot problems right away, and there were plenty of problems to see. However, if you are there for the ambiance and just want to see a bunch of neat cars, step back a few feet and you won’t see the flaws.

I can fully appreciate why the flaws were covered up with a coat or two of paint. It’s expensive as all get-out to fully restore a car, which requires the restorer cut out and repair the rust areas, drill, fill, and replate pitted chrome, and take care of so many more expensive items, and there are hundreds of cars in this collection. Unless the galleries are packed with paying customers every day, it’s simply not possible to restore every vehicle to a concours standard. Plus, the average patron isn’t going to notice the flaws, and really, that’s just fine. Oh, and a number of these cars, while great to look at, are collectible, but not necessarily valuable, and the cost of a full restoration would far exceed the resale value of the car.

Most of the cars on display are for sale, with prices all over the map. The best restorations obviously get the best prices.

Check out their website to see examples of their inventory, and to get a feel for the size and depth of this collection. As a car nut of the first order, the Miami Auto Museum at the Dezer Collection is a prize and really needs to be seen by more people. It should be a major tourist attraction. When I was there on a Saturday afternoon, it was nearly empty.

The museum offers a number of meeting rooms and special galleries for special events. Contact information is available at the Museum website.

I know I will be visiting the Dezer Collection again real soon. There are just so many things to see, with lots of nooks and crannies to uncover. I defy anyone to leave there without a big smile on their faces.